On January 27, 2019, I took part in a panel presentation and discussion on the subject of addressing childhood sexual abuse and pedophilia in our communities. The panel included researchers, mental health providers, pastors, and community activists. I gave the concluding remarks, which appear here in a lightly edited form.
Pedophilia and child sexual abuse are topics that we are not used to discussing at all, let alone in public, which is why included multiple voices here today. We need all these perspectives: researchers, practitioners, pastors, parents, survivors, artists, and more. For myself, I’ve also dealt with this issue on multiple levels. I experienced sexual abuse as a child; I’ve worked with both perpetrators and victims while providing pastoral care and community programming; I’ve been a foster parent to children who experienced sexual abuse; I’ve been an artist who channeled anger, grief, healing, and hope into music and writing.
As all of us know, life does not usually ask for permission for the pain and loss it doles out. But what strikes me most in all of these conversations is that 1) healing is not automatic or even inevitable and 2) we have managed to create a society and culture that too often actively works against the healing of everyone involved - victims, perpetrators, and our communities. I think this is what [another speaker] was referring to when he spoke about having to “come to grips with a certain murderous rage” he felt when learning about abusers’ actions. But I want to widen that net to include our entire larger culture.
Anecdotally, what I experienced growing up is still way too commonly experienced by the folk I continue to work with in conflict coaching, workshops, and support groups. Statistically, I’ve read the numbers from this stage several times on other occasions. Here are some I haven’t yet shared, from January 2018, to add to the catalog. Stop Street Harassment (SSH) and Raliance, a collaborative committed to ending sexual violence, surveyed 2,000 people and documented that
“81 percent of women surveyed ... had experienced sexual harassment or assault and ... 43 percent of men said they had experienced sexual misconduct … . … More than half (57 percent) of women and nearly half (42 percent) of men said their first experience of sexual harassment or assault occurred by the age of 17. Thirty percent of women and 22 percent of men said their [experience] occurred by age 13.” (https://www.newsweek.com/after-metoo-study-finds-nearly-all-women-and-almost-half-men-us-have-815660 )
And further, again both statistically and anecdotally, the reality is that most sex abusers are never discovered, let alone treated. In fact, “The low rate of reporting leads to the conclusion that more than 90 percent of all sex offenders are living in communities nationwide without ever having been charged for their crime.” (https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=90200&page=1 )
I talk about shifting the norm a lot, but it applies here, too. We want to act like sex abuse is uncommon, because we are socially trained things like this are so disgusting and shocking that it surely can’t – doesn’t - happen. And when we are confronted with the reality that it does happen, we just want it to go away. This is a limitation of shame culture; we try to control people's behavior with shame, and in the same action we cut off outlets for acknowledging and healing ourselves if it does happen. We substitute silencing victims and demonizing perpetrators for the very difficult work of transforming our cultures and creating communities that are actually healthy and safe. It’s very difficult because our social norms have provided very few accessible ways – policies, processes, resources, and professionals – to prevent, address, and heal sexual abuse. Instead -
- We feel angry. Retribution is our most common cultural pathway, and no one elicits the disgust and violence of the mob like a sexual predator who preys on children. But retribution centers the perpetrator and does very little to support and heal the victim or the community, let alone the perpetrator. We need to move from retributive to transformative and restorative models.
- We feel ashamed. Conservative cultures are especially vulnerable to deep shame and aversion when it comes to anything related to sex. Many victims of abuse are ignored simply because the adult hearing this stuff is ashamed and disgusted and responds by silencing the child. We need to move from repressive sexual attitudes and practices to comprehensive, developmentally and age appropriate sex education that includes bodily autonomy, sexual boundaries, and clear instructions for what to do if you are threatened with or experience abuse.
- We feel helpless. We don’t like to experience things that we don’t know how to deal with, even if we think they are wrong. But because our society focuses on retribution, and most sexual abuse is perpetrated by people we or our families or co-workers know and care about, we simply don’t know what to do. Or when perpetrators are prominent and powerful people in a community, we are afraid of the consequences of confronting them. So we do nothing, or we silence those who do try to speak, because we’re afraid things will just get worse, and we’ll feel even more helpless. We need to move from victim-blaming and cultures of silence to victim-centered models that normalize trauma-informed care and make that care universally available.
“When it came to questions about the consequences of sexual assault and misconduct, there was a small but clear shift against victims. / The share of American adults responding that men who sexually harassed women at work 20 years ago should keep their jobs has risen from 28% to 36%. The proportion who think that women who complain about sexual harassment cause more problems than they solve has grown from 29% to 31%. And 18% of Americans now think that false accusations of sexual assault are a bigger problem than attacks that go unreported or unpunished, compared with 13% … . (According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, … , 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police, whereas between 2% and 10% of assault cases are falsely reported.)” (https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/10/15/after-a-year-of-metoo-american-opinion-has-shifted-against-victims )
This shift was most noticeable among conservative respondents, of any gender; a full 50% of Trump voters indicated that they now believe that “Women who complain about sexual harassment cause more problems than they solve.” (https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/10/15/after-a-year-of-metoo-american-opinion-has-shifted-against-victims )
This is victim blaming. This is rape culture. This is the kind of attitude that translates into families, schools, churches, and communities that empower and enable sexual predators. When we talk about shifting social norms, we need to remember that we are talking about engaging with deeply held patriarchal values, attitudes, behaviors, and institutions that resist change. Again, I think most of us are really uncomfortable with the idea of just how prevalent sexual assault and abuse continues to be, including the abuse of children, and our patriarchal culture makes it very easy to fall into those patterns of helplessness, anger, and shame.
So we continue to have a lot of work ahead of us, in our hearts, homes, churches, schools, workplaces, communities, and cultures. I don’t believe it is possible to create communities that are completely immune to abuse, but I do think it is possible to create communities where the risks of abuse are greatly minimized, where people can easily and simply seek and receive help, as victims or perpetrators, where everyone grows up learning about healthy sexuality, and where everyone grows up learning about the resources available for preventing and healing the wounds left by abuse on both individuals and communities. We need to move to transformative and restorative models of justice. We need to move to comprehensive, developmentally and age appropriate sex education that includes bodily autonomy, sexual boundaries, and clear instructions for what to do if you are threatened with or experience abuse. We need to move victim-centered models that normalize trauma-informed and responsive care and make that care universally available.
Conversations like these are an important part of that process. We have to normalize talking about sexual abuse and pointing to practical changes we can make. And for that, we need to support spaces that make these conversations possible. I know that we, as a community, and I, personally, deeply appreciate and value the effort it takes to make conversations like this possible. That we can join together, for healing and for hope, is one of the most important aspects of community. We have lots of work to do, but we don’t have to do it alone.